Transmedia storytelling in virtual worlds

dragons in the den 1In my day job as an education innovator, I do a lot of work in virtual worlds. In fact, I’m the director of a Master’s degree that runs entirely in a virtual world called Second Life. Over the past 6 years or so I’ve become fascinated by these environments. They are such powerful places for simulations and role play in almost every academic subject you could think of. That’s not to say they replace activities and experiences in the physical world. Not at all. But virtual world simulations and role plays can help students to have experiences that are dangerous, unethical or just downright impossible in the physical world, but that are valuable learning experiences for their future practice. For example, I’ve led students through very realistic accident investigations in Second Life to prepare them for undertaking such investigations when they qualify. And, we’ve built a dragon’s den where students from a range of subject disciplines can pitch ideas for their assessments. Of course, on one occasion we tutors couldn’t resist dressing up our avatars as dragons for a pitching event 🙂 .

As a writer I’m also fascinated by the potential of these environments for extended storytelling. “Transmedia” or multi-platform storytelling has been around for a while, and has come to prominence more recently with examples like The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, an updated telling of the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice through the medium of video logs (vlogs) on YouTube. The audience can also leave questions for the characters and they answer them in later videos at particular points in the series. I like the idea of including an audience in a story and seeing how it evolves. And I’m captivated by the idea of creating an environment in a virtual world that enables that to happen.

Watermark book coverThere are two stories in Watermark. One takes place around 1.5 million years ago, and one in the modern day. In the book it’s the modern day story that’s developed and told to a conclusion. A conclusion. Not the only possible one. And the ancient story could also be developed in its own right. Because those characters are pre-human, there is a lot of scope for playing with ideas. Participants’ Homo ergaster avatars could roam the shores of what is now Lake Turkana in Kenya, playing out what might happen after Nimue is murdered.

I’m intent on doing this some day, hopefully not too far in the future. I have a good friend who is a great virtual worlds designer and we’re already hatching plans. We’ll have to see how they evolve.

Watery apes and small-minded columnists

Blog skull mediumI wrote Watermark partly because I love crime fiction and wanted to have a go at it myself, and partly because I have an interest in human evolution. I admit in the book that I’m not completely convinced by the whole argument in the aquatic ape hypothesis, but that there are some interesting and thought-provoking questions that the theory postulates answers for. On the 9th and 10th May this year there was a conference at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, attended by professional scientists who are undertaking research into human evolution. The conference was about anthropological, medical and nutritional aspects of human evolution, and concentrated particularly on the role of water and how we may have been influenced by it as a species. There were pro and con views of the extent to which water played a part, of course, which is what you expect in balanced scientific debate.

And then I came across an article in the Guardian by the editor of Nature, Henry Gee, and my heart sank. It’s sarcastic, dismissive and really demonstrates the worst excesses of “smarty-pants” scientists. Oh, and at the end of the article he plugs his own book that’s coming out in October! As he seems to be a fan of Occam’s Razor (the simplest explanations are often the right ones – OK massively paraphrased but you get the gist!) perhaps I could apply the razor to his article and shave away the bigotry to reveal a shameless bit of self-promotion? Perish the thought! We all have to promote our books Henry, but not at the expense of rubbishing the commitment and hard work of others.

If your interest is piqued, try reading some of Elaine Morgan’s books on the subject. She is now very elderly and quite poorly, but has spent a large part of her life in well-informed and very able pursuit of a fair hearing for alternative theories of human evolution. Henry Gee doesn’t name her at all, but lumps together all protagonists of the AAH as unqualified people whose opinion is worth nothing. To caricature such a modest, generous and hard-working woman in this way when she is now too ill to respond, is appalling. She was very kind and supportive of me when I was writing Watermark, and I will always have a great fondness for her.

See BBC “Great Welsh Writers” series.